The Hungarian capital comes into its own in summer. We have the lowdown on the best of the city’s unique outdoor bars and thermal baths, plus escaping to Buda Hills
Few European cities can rival Budapest’s glorious setting astride the Danube river. Its two sides, Buda and Pest, were separate cities until 1873, and they retain their own distinct identities, the former run through with ancient history, the latter noisier, earthier and more cosmopolitan. In Buda you’ll find royal palaces, Ottoman-era spas and wooded hills, while over in Pest you can pore over a clutch of fine museums, fantastic art nouveau buildings and a resurgent Jewish quarter.
At any time of year, Budapest has myriad charms, but nothing beats gazing out across the broad sweep of the Danube from the Castle District on a sultry summer’s evening. It is at this time, too, that open-air bars and pavement cafes do roaring trade, and restaurants go alfresco – indeed, Budapest’s gastronomic renaissance is one of the most exciting developments to hit the city in recent times. Throw in a flourish of new design hotels, fabulous food markets and venerable coffee houses, and it adds up to one of the continent’s most enticing summer city breaks.
What to do
It’s inconceivable, in this city of spas, that you’d leave without taking to the waters, as the natives have done since Roman times. Take a dip inside the majestically appointed art nouveau Gellért Baths (Kelenhegyi út 4, open daily 6am-8pm) – complete with majolica tiles and Roman columns; partake in a game of chess in the water at the enormous, palace-like Széchenyi Baths (Állatkerti körút 9-11, open daily, times vary); or go further back in time with a soak in the atmospheric, 16th-century Király Baths (Fő utca 84, open daily 9am-9pm) arguably the Turks’ finest contribution to the city. A more unorthodox way to enjoy this quintessential Budapest experience is to pop along to one of the increasingly popular night-time bath parties, if you’re into laser discos, that is.
• Details at spasbudapest.com
One way to escape the often sweltering mid-summer heat is to do as the locals do and take to the hills. As well as rambling and biking, there is an enduringly popular railway circuit, which comprises the 3km-long Cog-wheel Railway – operational since 1874, electrified in 1929 – and the Children’s Railway, an 11km narrow-gauge constructed by communist youth brigades after the second world war, and to this day still mostly staffed by teenagers. It’s a lovely slice of communist-era nostalgia, and heritage trains sometimes run.
For the full-on communist-era experience, the Memento Park (also known as Statue Park) has an assemblage of oversized statues and memorials that once stood in prominent public spaces throughout the city, but which were shunted out here following the collapse of the Iron Curtain. Visitors can wander among various apparatchiks, see giant statues of Stalin and Lenin and watch a secret agent training video. They can then hop inside a Trabant 601 car, that most iconic of Eastern Bloc symbols.
• Open daily 10am until dusk, corner of Balatoni út and Szabadkai utca, +36 1 424 7500, mementopark.hu
Southeast Asian Gold Museum
Budapest is full of terrific museums, but this little-known gem close to Városliget park is dazzling. The privately owned collection of a former diplomat to the region, it has nine rooms packed with a spectacular hoard of religious and secular metalwork, typical ritual statues and jewellery. There is also a collection of naughty-looking linga, phallic-like symbols hewn from stone or rock crystal – they’re guaranteed to raise a smile. Afterwards, visitors can chill out in the delightful oriental teahouse and garden.
• Andrássy út 110, +36 1 482 3190, thegoldmuseum.eu
Where to eat
Great Market Hall
Built in 1897, the splendid, wrought-iron Great Market Hall (Nagycsarnok) is the place to go for foodie treats. Aside from the usual fruit and veg stalls, there are counters piled high with meats, cheeses and baked goodies, as well as more exotic fare like foie gras, truffles and tokaj wine, though it is a little more expensive than elsewhere. Locals tend to head upstairs for a no-frills, canteen-style lunch at Fakanál, or just make for one of the many stalls selling lángos, a delicious, doughy, deep-fried flatbread topped with sour cream and cheese.
• Vámház krt 1-3, open 6am-6pm (3pm Saturday), closed Sunday
Budapest has four Michelin-starred restaurants, and this one is the most convivial and reasonably priced. Diners can sample dishes such as red tuna with strawberry sour (£8.60) and mangalica pork belly with buttered vegetables (£7.20), washed down with a glass of crisp, dry furmint white, one of more than 200 (mostly Hungarian) bottles to choose from here.
• Sas utca 3, +36 1 266 0835, borkonyha.hu
Just a stone’s throw from Great Market Hall – from where it sources many of its ingredients – the refreshingly low-key “Wine Court” is one of the more satisfying places to sample modern, affordable Hungarian cuisine. A good choice is the veal with foie gras served with pepper sauce and dumplings (£10.50) and a salty caramel and pear crumble (£2.80) accompanied by a glass of delicious dessert wine tokaj aszú to round off the evening .
• Csarnok tér 5, +36 1 219 0902, borbirosag.com
Few restaurants on touristy Liszt tér warrant serious consideration, but Menza bucks the trend. Designed to recreate the atmosphere of the socialist-era canteens of the 1960s and 70s, the cool retro fixtures and fittings are a delight. The food is anything but canteen-like, with dishes such as catfish stew with Hungarian cottage cheese gnocchi (£7.40), and a duck burger with gorgonzola cheese and blackberry mayonnaise (£6.90), maintaining a happy stream of punters.
• Liszt Ferenc tér 2, +36 1 413 1482, menzaetterem.hu
Where to drink
Occupying formerly dilapidated buildings and courtyards, these paragons of cool are now a firmly established fixture on the Pest party scene. Big-hitters such as Instant (Nagymezo utca 38), comprising more than 20 themed rooms, and Szimplakert (Kazinczy utca 14), an assortment of agreeably ramshackle, heavily graffitied spaces, draw huge crowds for their broad mix of music, dance and film. Less raucous is Café Bobek (Kazinczy utca 53), which was named after a communist rabbit no less, and whose relatively genteel decor and tree-filled garden is geared towards more contemplative drinking.
Hungarian wine may not be as famous as some, but it has fantastic pedigree. Among the rash of wine bars that have sprung up throughout the city, the brick-vaulted Doblo, in the atmospheric Jewish quarter, is the most relaxing. It has more than 200 varieties from Hungary’s 22 wine-growing regions, many available by the glass, perhaps paired with a ham and cheese platter. For oenophiles, there are dedicated tasting sessions (£22).
• Dob utca 20, +36 20 398 8863, budapestwine.com
Around the time of the first world war, writers and intellectuals would gather to while away the hours in this magnificent coffee house. Its grandeur impressively intact, Centrál remains the city’s most appealing cafe, doing great espresso with a slice of rétes (strudel) or dobos torta (layered sponge cake). It’s also not nearly as expensive as the more touristy places close by.
• Károlyi Mihály utca 9, centralkavehaz.hu
Tamp & Pull
Coffee – increasingly of the artisanal variety – is now big business in Budapest, and few places do it quite like Tamp & Pull, one of the new breed of espresso bars. It’s a tiny space but run through with charm, and the coffee is exquisite, lovingly crafted by champion baristas using beans from around the globe, details of which are displayed across the walls. It would also be remiss not to try one of their delectable pastries.
• Czuczor utca 3, tamppull.hu
Where to sleep
If you’re looking for a wow factor, albeit at a price, you’ll find it at Aria, a new luxury boutique hotel. Elegance pervades the place, from the distinguished, musically themed rooms (with marble tables and chairs, multimedia entertainment systems, iPads, and free bottled water and chocolates), to the Harmony Spa and beautiful glass-covered Music Garden. On top of all this designer splendour, complimentary wine and nibbles are served each afternoon.
• Doubles from £200 B&B, Hercegprímás utca 5, +36 1 445 4055, ariahotelbudapest.com
The erstwhile residence of the Hungarian prime minister, this handsome villa is something special, accommodating 11 idiosyncratic rooms, each one named after the artist whose work is featured within – and which, in some cases, used to be their studio – and features chunky wooden bedsteads, recycled furniture, roll-top baths and the like. The honesty bar is fab, and there is more fun to be had in the Brody Members’ Club and bar, to which guests receive free access.
• Doubles from £50, Vörösmarty utca 38, +36 1 266 1211, brodyhouse.com
Tucked away on a sunny little square, Gerlóczy has a vaguely Parisian ambience, its 19 rooms ranged over four colour-themed floors, namely red, blue, grey and yellow-green. Each room is beautifully fitted, with parquet flooring, big windows and lofty ceilings and – perhaps best of all – the mini-bar is free. The buzzing terrace cafe below is a favourite haunt of Budapesters.
• Doubles from £68 (breakfast £9), V Gerlóczy u 1, +36 1 501 400, gerloczy.hu
Reassuringly warm and welcoming, Home-Made couldn’t be further removed from your average hostel. The spacious dorms (no bunks) are furnished with second-hand bits and pieces garnered from Budapest homes, such as radios, typewriters and trunks, while two beautifully conceived double rooms – one with a loft space – offer a touch more intimacy. In the evenings, guests congregate in (and have the run of) the sweet little kitchen, where staff members occasionally rustle up a free meal.
• Dorm beds from £8, double room from £23 (cash payments only), Teréz krt 22 1/7 (Oktogon), +36 1 302 2103, homemadehostel.com